You Might Be Overlooking the Easiest Way to Help Your Shelter’s Long Term Stay Dogs

This is a guest post from Kristen Auerbach, Deputy Chief Animal Services Officer at Austin Animal Center.

On any given day at Austin Animal Center, there are 300 or more dogs waiting for homes. On average, it takes between two weeks to a month for them to find homes. But some of them, through no fault of their own, are passed over time and time again. These dogs wait patiently, sometimes for months, to find their families. We call them ‘hidden gems’ and they’re most often perfectly adoptable, medium and large, adult dogs who fail to catch the eye of potential adopters. Continue reading

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These Shelters Are Changing the Game to Get Their Dogs Adopted This Halloween

Promotions always bring people to a shelter and increase adoption rates – but they have to be the right promotion. They need to have a bit of flare. It’s not always easy to come up with creative ideas, but looking to the holidays can help you generate lots of ideas for shelter promotions. Halloween is one of the best holidays for doing just that.

Below are five of our favorite Halloween promotion ideas – and what’s really great about them is that most of them cost little to no money on your part. Continue reading

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Montreal SPCA Discusses the City’s New BSL and What It Means For Hundreds of Families

It’s been four days since the Montreal city council passed their ban on “pit bull type” dogs. Families in Montreal are scared, confused, and devastated. The rest of us are heartbroken and outraged.

But the people at the Montreal SPCA are passionately fighting their city officials. They’re fighting with facts, which show that breed specific legislation doesn’t reduce dog bites, and they’re offering up alternative approaches that actually work. Continue reading

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An Accidental Advocate

Guest post written by Stephanie Filer, Manager of Special Gifts & Partnerships, Animal Rescue League of Iowa.

The other day I received a call from a city councilperson in Randall, IA who needed our help. They were reviewing their city ordinances and she knew about our work to help cities strengthen their dog ordinances, so she reached out. Specifically, she wanted to remove some 10+ breeds from their banned list and instead, strengthen the enforcement for dogs of all breeds. Continue reading

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Compassionate Outreach: How Straw For Dogs Increases Quality of Life in Alaskan Communities

Straw For Dogs (S4D) is a remarkable volunteer group in Alaska working to improve the lives of dogs and people through compassionate, non-judgmental outreach, education, and rescue efforts. In addition to spay/neuter, vaccinations, and general vet care, S4D also provides pet food, pet supplies, training assistance, and custom insulated, elevated dog houses, filled with straw, to provide a warm shelter for dogs living outdoors.

Straw For Dogs was the recipient of a 2015 Your Program Your Ideas grant from Animal Farm Foundation for their Community Outreach/Owner Support work. We recently spoke with Metis Riley, co-founder and volunteer, about S4D’s progressive, effective approach to pet owner support services. Continue reading

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Picture Me Perfect: How Washington County Humane Society is Saving Lives Through Marketing

When Debbie Block, the Community Relations/Grant Director of The Washington County Humane Society in Slinger, WI, wrote us to report how WCHS had used the Adoption Marketing grant funds we awarded them last year, this caught our eye right away:

“We are very proud of our numbers – we have been helping more dogs in the state of Wisconsin than ever before. We are one of a handful of shelters in the state to pull animals from Milwaukee Animal Control. Our euthanasia rates are on the decline and our length of stay is decreasing as well. We are very proud of our numbers and continue to work harder to decrease the length of stay and increase our educational outreach.

This grant has helped us to think outside of the box when it comes to marketing our dogs. We are able to soften their pictures – make them whimsical and really show a goofy, loving, and rip at your heart strings image! We are still learning about all of our equipment … every day we get a little bolder and braver with our outreach.

In the meantime we are having a wonderful time watching our stats decline due to our Marketing Efforts and our Kennel Enrichment Program. Our euthanasia rate over the past three years is steadily on the decline. In 2013 we were at 9.7, 2014 we were at 8.78, and at 2015 we were at 5.75 – currently we are at 4%…Comparing this March to March of 2015, our length of stay is declining…. and we have been helping other shelters that are overflowing with dogs.”

Debbie also shared that along with the equipment they purchased with the initial $1,000 AFF grant (which included a green screen kit with video lightening kit, props, filters, SD cards, extra bulbs, and batteries, a tent, backdrop curtains and fall screen, flyers and cardboard cutouts of dogs to place in furniture stores), they were also able to secure further support from local businesses. Coldwell Banker donated $1,000 in matching funds for a new camera, lens, and camcorder and the Eagle Scouts have offered to build a photo booth!

We asked Debbie to share more about how WCHS has used their Adoption Marketing grant award to create their Picture Me Perfect project and make big changes for the people and pets in their community.

AFF: Has the new approach to photography and marketing allowed you to reach a wider audience? 

Debbie: Our grant has been so much fun! Our photos are getting shared all the time.

For example: One dog, Dreamboat, continually was overlooked. I saw a photo of Matthew McConaughey driving his Lincoln. It got the wheels turning. Then I saw a photo of Ellen DeGeneres of her in the back of the car. That was when it hit me – let’s put Dreamboat in the front seat! We used the new green screen to make it happen.


I shared the photo and everyone was going crazy! I posted it to Ellen DeGeneres’ Facebook page and people were loving it. We got messages from out of state telling us: awesome job, keep up the good work, and way to think outside of the box.

We’re really just beginning. People in Wisconsin love their Packers, so we put a photo of one of our dogs into the huddle with the Packers. We try to show rabbits in home situations, blooper photos of dogs, and serious heart tugging photos too.

We love that the grant helped spark some new partnerships with other groups, like Coldwell Bankers and the Eagle Scouts, who also recognize the importance of great marketing! How did that come about? Do you have any tips for other shelters looking for local partners on similar projects?

I cannot stress enough that reaching out to your community is vital. Create partnerships and your shelter will go far.

I approached Coldwell Banker about their recent partnership with other shelters and asked them to consider doing something with us. Each Coldwell Banker is a franchise – we happen to be blessed with a volunteer who is a realtor for Coldwell Banker Homesale Realty and has a big heart with helping animals. He has funded many of our projects to help us with marketing and thinking outside of the box.

green screen


If I can give one piece of advice it would be: Make yourself visible, ask for help, talk about how you help the community, and don’t forget to mention to the business that you will help market their business or service as well. It’s all about community!

Along the way you will get a lot of “nos”, but don’t ever stop trying. Come back to that organization next year. Diligence pays off. Remind them of the services your organization provides and how you assist them.

Offer to give a tour or do an educational venue at their organization. Share your vision, as well as the vision of the organization. When you make yourself vulnerable, it’s easy for a company or organization to see you are sincere.

Your fun photographs help adopters to see the cats, dogs, and small animals as individuals. How does this approach help dogs like Moses, who might get passed over in the kennels, to go home faster and with the right families?


From the Grant Report: Moses Makes A Different 1st Impression


Having fun photos or videos helps potential adopters see that animal outside of their cage. Whenever we have a dog that looks or behaves a little overwhelmingly in their kennel, it is critical to have volunteers and staff tell people about that animal and show them outside of their cage. Talk to adopters and the public about what a great animal he/she is. Find out what exactly they are looking for and help them find the perfect fit.

It’s critical to show and share those videos. We do different social media posts every day of the week. Keep things interesting. We post information on dogs that people pass by and suggest that people stop by and treat that dog.


Often times I’ll offer tours with some education; it’s a great time to talk about behaviors they might be seeing and tell people how we are working through the high energy, various behavior issues, and the harder to place animals.

We have fantastic volunteers and staff who work hard every day to make a difference in the lives of the animals that are at our shelter. We are truly blessed. And with their help we will never stop thinking outside of the box, learning, and striving for improvements.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with other shelters and rescues about what you’ve learned through “Picture Me Perfect”?

Just try new techniques – test your audience. Monitor your numbers. Find out when your demographic/followers are watching on social media and follow the stats on your website. These are important numbers and you will then know when to reach out at the most opportune time.


Don’t be afraid to experiment. Some people might not like what you are doing, but then again remember you are doing it for the animals. If people are talking good, bad, or indifferent it’s good! They are watching what you are doing and that’s ok. Your work is getting noticed. Keep doing it.

One thing I can’t stress enough is don’t be afraid to ask for in-kind donations: props, money to create flyers, video cameras, SD Cards, backup batteries, etc.

Show people you are committed and community will embrace you!

Thank you Debbie and WCHS – keep up the great work!


If your organization would like to apply for an Adoption Marketing grant, please see our website. The deadline to apply for 2016 is June 1st!


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Perfect Fit: Why “Pit Bull” Dogs Are Flying Out Our Doors

Guest post written by Stephanie Filer, Manager of Special Gifts & Partnerships, Animal Rescue League of Iowa.

A young newlywed recently asked us for help. She wanted to surprise her husband with a new dog for his birthday. Excited to assist, we created a gift that included a dog application with the words “APPROVED” on it and some dog toys. After she surprised him with the gift, they would come in to the shelter together to choose their first dog and new family member.

A few weeks later I ran into her with her husband. They were at the shelter meeting a dog that they had both fallen in love with online: Shaggy.

Sadly for them, they weren’t the only ones who fell in love with Shaggy! They were 4th in line to adopt him. The woman told me she cried when she found out that they might be too late to adopt Shaggy.

He was the perfect size, the perfect look, the perfect personality…but because three other families thought the same thing too, they might not be the ones to take Shaggy home.

She told me they had arrived at the shelter 30 minutes before we opened to make sure they’d be first in line to adopt Shaggy, not realizing that three other families had already applied.

What kind of dog inspires waiting in line? Or crying at the thought of missing out on adopting him?

What kind of dog do you imagine Shaggy might be?

Here are some hints:

He’s not a puppy.

He’s not a small dog.

He’s not a designer mutt.

He’s not famous or from a high profile rescue case and has never been on the news.

Shaggy is an adult “pit bull” dog.

Shaggy is a dog that has been labeled a “pit bull” in an area where some of the communities we serve still have Breed Specific Legislation which means many of our adopters, including this couple, unfortunately need to navigate extra barriers to legally bring dogs like Shaggy home.

And yet, he flew out our doors.


The narrative we so often hear in our industry is that “no one wants to adopt pit bulls,” but that’s no longer our experience at ARL.

Shaggy’s story illustrates just how popular “pit bull” dogs actually are (5th most popular in Iowa and in the top 10 in 48 states). Most importantly, it reminds us how dogs who are labeled “pit bulls” are just DOGS.

People don’t adopt labels. They adopt the dogs that are the right fit for them.

Shaggy was the perfect size, the perfect look, the perfect personality. For multiple families, he was the perfect dog, just the right fit for their lifestyle.

That’s what matters most to this new family, to the other 3 families who applied to adopt him, and to the thousands of families who adopt dogs from us each year.

Everyone has their own idea of what “perfect” is in terms of size, look, and personality – and every dog is different – that’s what makes dogs so cool! That’s also what makes it so fun to help families find their perfect dog.

But if we want to help families and make great matches, then we also need to check our assumptions about what kind of dogs we perceive that the public does or does not want to adopt.

In 2010 we had 7 “pit bull” adoptions all year.

In 2016 we have multiple applications and people in tears when they miss out on a adopting dogs that are labeled “pit bulls.”

“Pit bull” dogs are flying out our front doors.

The dogs didn’t change.

We changed.

We changed as an organization in terms of how we talk about dogs: instead of talking about their breed label or where they came from, we talk about who they are as an individual dog and what kind of family lifestyle they would prefer.

Shaggy is not an exception. This happens all the time.

A few days ago I took a dog on TV for our weekly feature. Twilight is a year old, walked like a dream on a leash, was shy at first but warmed up quickly, and was very curious about the action in the studio.

Because she needed a family who could give her patience and a calm environment to let her settle into her new life, we had restricted her adoption to families with either teenage kids or no kids. This makes her a little tougher to place since we were eliminating many families right off the bat, but it was the home we identified that Twilight would need to thrive.

She laid nicely next to me as I talked with the host about her ideal family and the other upcoming events we had going on at the shelter. By the time we got back to the shelter (after stopping at a drive thru for a cheeseburger for her), she already had two pending adoption applications.

As you have probably guessed, Twilight was labeled as a “pit bull.” And despite her limited adoption audience (no small kids), Twilight was popular! She had applications on her when other dogs who were younger, smaller, and without children restrictions, didn’t.

Over and over, we experience this at ARL.

The families who adopt are as diverse as the dogs in our shelter. The perfect dog for me (big, a little ornery, good with cats) and my child-free home is different from the next person, and the person after that.

And guess who decided that Twilight was the perfect fit for their family? The newlyweds!


After missing out on Shaggy, they were introduced to Twilight and fell in love. They were, once again, one of many families that were in line to adopt an adult “pit bull” dog.

When we asked them what they thought about that, they replied, “We just want a nice dog who fits our lifestyle.”

Simply put, that’s what it’s all about.

When we focus on who the dog is, what they need, and what the family wants, we can talk about things that matter: helping families find the perfect dog for them and setting them up for a lifetime of happiness together.


Stephanie Filer is the Manager of Special Gifts & Partnerships, overseeing the fundraising and marketing team for the Animal Rescue League of Iowa – the state’s largest animal shelter. In addition to her love for animals, she shares a passion for helping people through volunteering for the local homeless youth shelter and serving as a mentor to kids in need.

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More Animal Shelters Remove Breed Labels: Is Software Catching Up?

Guest post written by Kristen Auerbach, Deputy Chief Animal Services Officer at Austin Animal Center in Austin, TX.

In 2008, Dr. Amy Marder wrote, “Instead of depending on inaccurate breed labels, we want people to choose their future companions based on accurate personality profiles.” To this end, she introduced the idea of using “American Shelter Dog” in place of a breed label because, as she said, “The problem is that breed identity elicits behavioral expectations on the part of the new owner, even though researchers have found enormous behavioral variability within all breeds.”

Eight years later, the word is finally getting out: The labels we assign to shelter dogs are both highly inaccurate and can result in dogs waiting longer to find a home. A recent study, titled, “What’s in a Name? Effect of Breed Perceptions and Labeling on Attractiveness, Adoptions and Length of Stay for Pit-Bull-Type Dogs” revealed that length of stay and outcomes for all dogs was negatively impacted by labels on kennel cards and suggests that breed labeling influences potential adopters’ perceptions and decision-making.

The research confirmed two important points:

  1. In some areas, the public may have negative perceptions of “pit bull” dogs that impact adoption rates. In our experience, this is different in each community. In some areas, people are lining up to adopt “pit bull” dogs.
  1. Breed labels can have negative implications on the adoption process for all dogs.

More importantly, thanks to another body of research, it is also proven beyond a doubt that breed labeling, based on visual identification, is not accurate.

This solid body of research can help shelters make two important changes to increase both the quantity and the quality of adoptions for all dogs:

Improve marketing for all pets, including “pit bull” dogs: marketing efforts must be improved in order to help the public get to know the individual dogs in the shelter’s care, which includes shining a light on “pit bull” dogs. By helping the public to see the millions of happy “pit bull” dog families we can help combat lingering stereotypes and misinformation. Looking for ways to market all dogs more effectively? See my recent articles: here and here.

Remove breed labels for all dogs: by doing away with inaccurate guesses, we remove information that is unreliable, yet perceived by the public as fact. Instead, we can work to get to know our adopters and determine what kind of personality traits they’d like in a dog, then help them find the individual dog that best meets their needs. With nearly 75% of all dogs in shelters being mixed breed, we can’t rely on breed standards based on our inaccurate breed guesses, to assess which dogs are the right matches. Getting to know both the people and the dogs will lead to better adoptions for every family.

mixed breed puppies

We look forward to the day when shelter software allows us to label dogs like these puppies as “mixed breed”, rather than labeling them with a guess.

Why are breed labels so misleading? For both the public and the shelter workers, breed labels come with a set of expectations, generalizations and stereotypes. These assumptions typically set unreasonable expectations for shelter dogs and can have detrimental effects on adoptions. It is not unusual for dogs of all kinds to be returned when they don’t meet the adopter’s assumptions about how that dog should behave, based solely on the breed label that was assigned at intake. By removing the breed, we open the door to more accurate conversations.

To further increase accuracy in our communications, we can remove breed labels from our “lost” pet listings, too. When shelters assign a breed label to stray dogs this can delay or thwart the dog being reclaimed by their owners who may have labeled their dog a different breed mix.  The more accurate approach is to focus on the physical description of the dog: color, weight, any identifying characteristics, where the dog was found, etc.

However, the remaining hurdle for most shelters is that most shelter software systems still require us to select a predominate breed, even when we don’t know. And when we don’t know, too often we go with catch-all phrases like ‘pit bull mix’ or ‘lab mix.’ Our software systems do not allow us to select ‘unknown’ or even ‘mixed breed’ despite the plethora of research on the problems with guessing and labeling. This means shelters are stuck with using these labels on kennel cards, adoption contracts, and other official paperwork.

kennel cards

The good news is that as we now understand how inaccurate and possibly damaging those labels are, more and more shelters are pushing back on the limitations imposed by shelter software.

Despite the fact that breed labels couldn’t be removed entirely, several shelters across the United States, including Orange County Animal Services and my previous shelter in Fairfax County, Virginia, stopped using labels on our kennel cards. At the Fairfax County Animal Shelter, we saw an immediate increase in adoptions as our customers got to know dogs without being influenced by a label guess.

To further help our community understand this change, we quit using breed labels in our social media posts and put the emphasis of telling the unique stories of each of our dogs. At my current shelter, Austin Animal Center in Austin, Texas, we’ve seen an increase in adoptions since we dropped the labels off our kennel cards in late 2015.

We also changed how we speak about our dogs, and adopters are embracing us as the experts on this topic. When someone asks us, “What breed is that dog?” instead of making a guess and probably being wrong, we say, “The vast majority of our dogs are of mixed breed heritage and when we guess a breed, we’re often wrong.” People really do understand this and they appreciate our honesty.

If there are concerns about housing restrictions or other breed discriminatory policies, we always address those potential issues openly with adopters. This approach is about being accurate and honest about what we know and do not know. If there are concerns that a dog may be perceived as a restricted breed by another member of the community, such as animal control or landlord, we address this. Removing breed guesses doesn’t restrict information, it opens the doorway to more accurate, in-depth conversations.

One of many mixed breed dogs of unknown origin that come through our shelter doors.

One of many wonderful mixed breed dogs, of unknown origin, who arrived at our shelter.

To learn why we changed how we talked about breed, check out this earlier post on the subject. Published last summer, it will tell you how you can make immediate changes in your shelter to increase adoptions, shorten length of stay and help every dog in your care be seen for who she is, not her label.

Thankfully, some shelter software companies are hearing the message that shelters want to have the discretion to choose a ‘mixed breed’ or ‘unknown’ label for dogs of unknown heritage (the vast majority of dogs in shelters today). They’re asking questions and are looking for ways to overcome the obstacles that have prevented this change in the past. It seems likely shelters will be able to choose not to use breed labels in the relatively near future.

The bottom line is we have nothing to gain by perpetuating subjective labels as accurate or even helpful information. In recent weeks, shelters such as the Arizona Animal Welfare League and Dallas Animal Services have announced they would remove all breed labels from their kennel cards. They join the growing numbers of shelters nationwide who are no longer perpetuating guesses at breed or breed mix as reliable information.

There are still many challenges and obstacles to overcome for shelters and dog owners in our communities, but soon I predict we will have won another victory for all dogs when we are no longer required to label shelter dogs with inaccurate breed labels.

Want to hear more about this? Join me and Caitlin Quinn (Director of Operations at HeARTs Speak, Inc.), speaking on behalf of Animal Farm Foundation, at the Humane Society of the United States Animal Care Expo this May. We’ll be telling you how to save more lives by changing how you think and talk about breeds and sharing tips for how you can remove breed from the equation now. Removing breed labels is easier than you think and soon we hope it will be even easier!

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Marketing is Not Adoption Counseling: Keep ‘Em Separate, Save More Lives

Guest post written by Kristen Auerbach, Deputy Chief Animal Services Officer at Austin Animal Center in Austin, TX.

Shy dog Derek had been at Austin Animal Center, waiting for a family for several months, but was timid and scared in his kennel and didn’t seek out attention. There were no sparks with potential adopters.

As I sometimes do with dogs who need some extra attention, I brought him into my office and got to know him over the course of a few days. I saw him around other dogs, kids, and cats. I learned that he was very well behaved, but seemed unsure of the world, and sometimes became nervous. I observed his back legs seemed to bow out and he walked a little funny.

derek 1

Derek was super shy in his kennel and was one of those dogs we sometimes call “shut down.”

With this new information, it was time to do some marketing. I wrote a silly little description of my experience with Derek and stuck it on his kennel.

derek staff pick

I brought him in my office and got to know him over a couple of days. I made a silly flyer and put it on his kennel.

After just two days with the new sign, a woman wanted to meet him in the play yard. Once they got to meet, she saw there was a spark between them and said, “I want to take him home.”

At that point, after that initial magic connection had been made, we began the adoption counseling.

I described everything I had observed, including that he seemed to like the children he met, but also seemed unsure of them. I also told her that he needed his back legs checked out and that he might have some issues because of his conformation. I was honest and disclosed everything we had assessed and observed about Derek.

The adopter asked a lot of good questions. She considered if he was the right fit for her.

At the end of the counseling process, she was still convinced Derek was for her. She adopted him that day and when we followed up, she told us she is ‘completely in love’ and he’s the perfect dog for her.

Figure 3 This family saw the flyer, met Derek, bonded with him, went through the counseling process and adopted him. Derek was so proud!

This family saw the flyer, met Derek, bonded with him, went through the counseling process and adopted him. Derek was so proud!

Dogs like Derek are typically marketed to the public with information like:

“Shy, needs home with adults only” or “Probably a backyard dog and not well-socialized.”

These statements, used during the marketing phase, act as STOP signs which prevent potential adopters from asking to meet dogs (even ones that would be a great fit for them!). To help send more pets home, shelters need to separate the marketing from the adoption counseling.


Too often we mistake social media marketing as the place for adoption counseling.  

Can you spot the ‘stop signs’ in these posts?

 “Elsa is a gorgeous, two-year-old pit bull who loves people and loves to snuggle and go on walks. She must be the only dog in the house. She’d do best in house with no kids. Elsa has been waiting more than two years to find a new family to love her. Could she be the one for you?”

“Sam is fun-loving dog with tons of energy who is looking for an active home. He is really good with most people, but he prefers women over men. He is reactive and has mild separation anxiety, but with the right person, he’s going to make an awesome pet!”

I know what you’re thinking: “We have a responsibility to our adopters/fosters/rescuers/public to tell them everything we know about that animal! Are you saying we should intentionally hide the truth?”

No.  As animal welfare professionals and volunteers, we owe it to our community and our adopters to disclose everything we know about one of our animals.

However, we share all of that information during the adoption counseling portion of the process…not in the marketing.

Marketing is meant to grab attention and open a door. Adoption counseling is for full disclosure.

Marketing is what GETS people to the adoption counseling process by piquing their interest in meeting the animals. But you can’t do the complicated business of adoption counseling if NO ONE is there for you to talk to. Marketing: it’s what makes the full conversation happen!

Here are some simple tips for keeping your marketing separate from your adopting counseling process. If you do this, you’ll increase your adoptions, make better matches, and get more pets out of your shelter or rescue and into permanent homes.

DON’T include every single detail about an animal’s entire life or try to explain every possible flaw or challenge this pet may have in one post.

Imagine writing a job resume where you list every mistake you’ve ever made, all the projects that didn’t go well, and all the things your coworkers find most annoying about you. You’re probably never going to get the call to come in for that job interview, even if you are a great prospect!

resume pic

While this is an extreme example, it makes an important point. Every person (and dog) has a variety of personality traits and behaviors. We all have a history of highs and lows that makes us who we are. If we put it ALL on the table, before a prospective employer gets to meet us and form a connection with us, we’re not going to get the call to even come in for the interview.

For dogs, they’re probably not going to get the opportunity to meet the person who could change the course of their lives!

Think about it like this: Your resume is a way to land the interview where you have a chance to discuss your strengths and weaknesses. The social media post or bio is the way to get adopters to meet your dogs and have a discussion with you about all of their needs.

DO tell a story! Dalton, pictured here, was a wild child in the shelter. He barked and whined while kenneled and had tons of energy. His behavior in the shelter sent adopters running. Dalton was passed over many times.

In the past, we might have posted that Dalton was a ‘high energy’ dog looking for an ‘active’ family who would take him running and hiking. But we’ve learned potential adopters read through the lines, even when we try to be subtle about potentially negative traits.

Instead we sent Dalton to a foster home for a few days, so we could learn more about him. His foster mom shared a quick story about something he did while at their house.


That story, posted on Facebook, brought in dozens of interested adopters. Marketing him this way allowed us to find a family from this group who was perfect for this young, exuberant pooch. Everyone else that was interested adopted other dogs. Win-win!

For more information on writing descriptions that create connection and draw in adopters, check out Animal Farm Foundation’s E-Book about marketing and advertising.

DON’T focus on restrictions. Restrictions are articulated either as a directive statement, as in “no kids” or as a passive statement such as, “would do best in a home with no kids.” A restriction like this means different things to different people. It leaves a lot of room for people to imagine why you’ve included it in your marketing.

For most adopters, a statement like this will act as a stop sign because they don’t know why you’re using it and it may sound scary. Even for potential adopters who don’t have kids, they may think, “Well, my neighborhood has kids and so I guess this dog won’t work for me,” or alternately, “I don’t have kids, but who wants a dog that doesn’t like kids?” or even, “I wonder if this dog has hurt kids?” By placing restrictions in your marketing, you may have turned off some really great adopters who are the right match.

Even if you are firm about the restriction and will not adopt the dog to a home with kids or cats, you can save that conversation for the in-person adoption counseling process. This is when you will explain the dog’s full history and why you are going to use the restriction. Your adopters will appreciate your transparency and information and trust in your adoption process.

To read more about restrictions, check out Animal Farm Foundation’s E-book about adoption best practices.

Figure 4 Ghost, pictured here, is a deaf dog. We marketed her by talking about how despite her inability to hear, how happy and joyful she always is. Without any special criteria or restrictions, we found her the perfect family.

Ghost, pictured here, is a deaf dog. We marketed her by talking about how despite her inability to hear, how happy and joyful she always is. Without any special criteria or restrictions, we found her the perfect family.

DO stick to positive marketing that inspire adoptions and will create the opportunity for adopters to meet the dog, before beginning the counseling process.

DON’T feel bad if the marketing doesn’t lead to the right match. If someone comes to meet a pet because of your positive marketing and they can’t adopt that particular pet, because of a medical or behavioral issue that you discuss with them, that’s ok…

DO see this as opportunity to make the right match. All of our staff makes an effort to always know some information about six or seven different animals in our shelter. That way, if the pet the adopter saw on social media wasn’t the perfect fit, we have several other potential matches already in mind!

DON’T use industry language, or ‘shelter-speak’ in your marketing efforts. Terms like ‘barrier reactive’ and ‘resource guarding’ might be everyday lingo for you, but to adopters that are both frightening and confusing. Even terms like, ‘jumpy/mouthy’ mean something different to you than what they might mean to a person who is unfamiliar with animal welfare jargon. They may scare off adopters.

DO use everyday language in your marketing, as well as your adoption counseling, that regular people understand. And if you do use a term like ‘zoomies,’ make sure you explain what you mean!

Want to keep it simple? Remember that marketing gets people in the door who are excited to adopt and creates the opportunity for honest, open adoption counseling to happen at the shelter, where the best possible matches can be made.

Commit to a positive-only marketing approach combined with a conversation-based adoption counseling process and you’ll start to send more pets home, right where they belong.


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Breed Labels: When Guesses Turn Into Predictions

As we travel around the country, having conversations with shelters and rescues about the “pit bull” dogs in their care, we find that there are always a few big a-ha! moments that help people understand that all dogs are individuals just a bit better.

One of the more exciting moments typically happens during our Labels & Language presentation where we discuss the role of breed labeling in shelters and the assumptions we make about dogs based on those labels.

The talk helps shelters understand a number of concepts that apply not only to “pit bull” dogs, but to ALL the dogs in their care.

This one being of utmost importance:

How a dog is labeled or how they look on the outside, is not an indication of past or future behavior or their suitability for a particular adoption placement.

Too often, we make incorrect assumptions about dogs based on label or appearance.

Thanks to ample research, we know that visual breed identification of dogs is highly inaccurate. One study found that the breed labels assigned to shelter dogs by staff members were wrong at least 75% of the time.

Despite this, shelters continue to use breed labels. This is problematic because the highly inaccurate labels we assign to dogs cause people to speculate about how those dogs will behave or what kind of family they’ll need.

We’re using guesses to make predictions.

labels and perceptions

This approach leads to significant unintended consequences for all dogs, not just “pit bull” dogs.

Recently, we were at a shelter observing a photo shoot for a dog’s adoption profile. One person commented that the dog, a mutt, had black spots on his tongue so he was probably a Chow mix. If the speculation had stopped there, it wouldn’t have been much of a problem – maybe the guess was right or maybe not. We can certainly share our guesses. There’s nothing wrong with that!

But the guess quickly led to a discussion about how this dog might behave based on that label (independent, aloof) and therefore what kind of family he would need (not a good choice for a first time owner).

Rather than pay attention to the dog in front of us at that moment, who was enjoying getting his photo taken, the conversation took off with assumptions and predictions based on a breed description that may or may not apply to this individual dog.

A guess turned into a prediction.

If instead of speculating, we were more present in observing the animal in different situations, like how this dog was relaxed and social during a photo shoot, we’d realize that our assumptions are often way off base.

With nearly 75% of all shelter dogs reported as mixed breed dogs and with a 75% chance that shelter workers will make an incorrect guess at what that breed mix is, it’s clear that we’re making a lot of incorrect assumptions about the dogs in our care.

This is why we advocate for the removal of breed labels in shelters, a trend that’s gaining steam with progressive organizations in 2016.

Maybe you’re still not convinced. It helps to look at the science and research.

Many of you have seen our infographic All Dogs Are Individuals where we revealed the science of why breed and appearance alone are not accurate indicators of future behavior.

In our live presentations, we find that one series of photos really drives the point home that our unreliable breed guesses aren’t the basis for accurate predictions of future behavior.

Take a look at the following slides:

In 1965 Scott and Fuller published Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog based on their research.

scott fuller

If these dogs came into your shelter, what breed mix would assume these two dogs are? And what assumptions would you make about how they will behave in the future?

Unlike in real life, where we often don’t know the parents of the mixed breed dogs that arrive in our shelters, we do know the genetic makeup of these two pups:

scott fuller

The two black and white puppies are a cross between a purebred Basenji and a purebred Cocker Spaniel!

Clearly, the puppies do not physically resemble either parent. But it doesn’t stop there…

When the puppies were backcrossed to either of the parental breeds – a purebred Basenji or a purebred Cocker Spaniel – those litters showed even more variability in physical appearance. See for yourself:

scott fuller

These photos make it crystal clear that breed guesses based on visual appearance are highly inaccurate.

We make labeling mistakes all the time and those mistakes have real consequences.

But we don’t have to take Scott and Fuller’s word for it.

More current research, such as the 2015 study titled Inconsistent identification of pit bull-type dogs by shelter staff, continues to serve as a reminder that breed guesses and labels, even those made my experienced shelter staff and veterinarians, are frequently incorrect. The results of the study revealed that:

“One in five dogs genetically identified with pit bull heritage breeds were missed by all shelter staff at the time of the study. One in three dogs lacking DNA evidence for pit bull heritage breeds were labeled pit bull-type dogs by at least one shelter staff member.”

We’re so often wrong when we make guesses about dog breeds. Yet those labels are powerful.

We allow them to influence our perceptions and predict future behavior or suitability for adoption into certain homes. This can lead to poor matches in regards to energy and temperament for adopters, along with more serious consequences, such as restrictions based on breed.

The bottom line is that labels aren’t reliable and they don’t tell us what we need to know about dogs. Rather than focus on labels and perceived breed, get to know the individual dog in front of you instead!


kennel cards

Use our sign and language to help explain this to your adopters!

More on this topic:

How to drop breed labels at shelters

FAQS about labels (including: how to address breed specific restrictions and insurance issues honestly with adopters and in software systems).

A look at another shelter that dropped labels



Posted in Adoption and Marketing, Programs and Events | Tagged | 3 Comments